Thirty years before Julius Thibodeaux became the leader of Sacramento's controversial new anti-gun violence program, Advance Peace, he was a shooter himself.
He pulled the trigger on his first victim when he was 15 — over a $5 dispute.
It was 1986 and Thibodeaux was living in Richmond, making money selling weed he bought from an elementary school janitor.
Playing dice with a group of neighborhood guys one afternoon, he passed a ripped bill to a man who had made a habit of hassling him. The man grabbed Thibodeaux's cash out of his hand, found a good fiver and threw the rest back at him. The wind caught the stack, and Thibodeaux had to scramble to collect it all, leaving him humiliated and fuming.
Soon after, Thibodeaux bought a .25 caliber pistol for about $50. He found the man in an alley and gunned him down.
"I was emotionally immature," Thibodeaux, 46, said recently while sitting in a Sacramento coffee shop. "I was a kid, so you know, I am dealing with these feelings, and I am living in basically a society where it's not even accepted to deal with that initial feeling of being hurt or embarrassed. It's cool to go to the secondary emotion, which is anger."
The man didn't die, but Thibodeaux was arrested. What followed was six years of escalating criminal activity and another shooting that ultimately landed him a sentence of five years to life in California's prison system.
He served 23 years before being paroled in 2016, after California expanded a law giving wider parole consideration to inmates convicted when they were young.
Now, he has been hired by the city of Sacramento to run Advance Peace as it expands here. The program matches dangerous young people with elders who have lived similar lives. Often felons like Thibodeaux, these mentors have criminal infamy that still carries enough weight on the street to give them credibility with kids caught up in this generation of violence. Their previous lives also offer insights into why the cycle of petty beefs and paybacks still holds sway.
"This is not the fluffy part of youth development," said Khaalid Muttaqi, director of the city's Office of Violence Prevention, which works closely with Advance Peace. "This is going into the eye of the storm."
A five-year analysis of the city's homicide data and intelligence conducted last year found that when someone is a victim of gun violence in Sacramento, there's a good chance that one of about 50 young men of color pulled the trigger, Muttaqi said, though pinpointing that number is "not an exact science."
These are the young people Advance Peace hopes to convince to voluntarily change their ways.
Police often don't have the evidence for an arrest or the community trust needed to get information — so many of these men remain free even after committing violent crimes. In 2016, the most recent period for which full-year data is available, the city closed only 14 of 41 homicides, a clearance rate of about 34 percent, according to California Department of Justice statistics.
The national 2016 average for homicide clearance rates — defined largely as the number of cases in which a suspect is charged compared to unsolved killings — was 55.5 percent, according to the FBI.
Sacramento police said they calculate their clearance rate at 51 percent because they track homicides differently than how they report them to the DOJ.
In 2017, the city saw a spate of gun crimes related to gangs, including shootings that were suspected of being linked to disputes between fans of local rap musicians. There were 39 homicides in the city last year, 24 by gun, according to city statistics. Seven of those victims were teenagers; another was 11 years old.
In response, Sacramento signed a four-year, $1.5 million contract with Advance Peace, making it the second city in the nation to try the approach. (Stockton has since signed up as well.) In Richmond, where the program began, gun crimes have fallen significantly, though it's unclear how much of that is directly the result of Advance Peace.
The program offers "fellowships" that include mentoring, opportunities for education, job training and travel, and a monetary stipend of up to $9,000 for reaching goals such as successfully completing substance abuse treatment. The project runs over an 18-month period. The stipend comes from outside philanthropic funds, not public dollars.
Critics contend Advance Peace is little more than paying criminals to behave. Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones previously has said he has “fundamental objections” to the program and to the idea of paying “people just to (not) commit crimes or shoot people.”
Thibodeaux sees it differently.
Since February, Thibodeaux has been out in Sacramento neighborhoods finding and meeting as many of those 50 volatile young men suspected of being shooters as he can find. He is incrementally making inroads to gain their trust, helping them in small ways like driving them to the DMV to get a license. He also has helped hire six other Advance Peace "change agents" with backgrounds like his own, who will work in pairs in Del Paso Heights, Oak Park and Meadowview.
"I believe that these young men are worth it," Thibodeaux said. "I get that most people don't understand."
At 6 feet 5 inches tall and 240 pounds, Thibodeaux is an imposing presence. He speaks with the quiet and careful cadence of a man still trying to navigate the foreign country of freedom. But he also has a raw transparency when speaking of his life and the kind of humility necessary to convince parole boards a second chance is warranted.
"I had a warped definition of what it meant to be a man prior to going to prison," he said. "It's very troubling to know that I set such a bad example, and there's repercussions to that. ... It's all about whether or not you're willing to take on that responsibility, or you're willing to admit how terrible things (were), how deep and offensive your transgressions were. Like, you really ruined a lot of lives."
After he shot that man in the alley, Thibodeaux was sent to juvenile detention but soon after was released to live with his great-uncle in Oak Park.
He didn't stay out of trouble for long. His older sister had been dating a drug dealer in Richmond who went by the name Big Sonny. Thibodeaux, then a sophomore at Sacramento High, started buying cocaine from Big Sonny, cooking it into crack and selling it. He moved to Valley Hi when he was in danger of being kicked out of Sac High and recruited others to sell for him.
He became, by his own description, a major drug dealer and a significant player in Sacramento's criminal culture. By the time he was 19, he had nearly a dozen people selling for him around the city, each moving a kilo of cocaine every few days, he said. Big Sonny taught him to treat drug dealing like a business, without emotion.
Thibodeaux would date only women who weren't involved in street life and used their kitchens to make his product, he said. Police were less likely to suspect them. He stayed away from violence when he could, because Sonny taught him "you can't get paid from a dead man," he said.
"Unfortunately, I thought being a man was having as much money as you possibly can have, sleeping with as many women as you possibly could," he said. "That was basically it in a nutshell. As long as you got money, girls, women, what more is there to life?"
His downfall came when he tried to negotiate peace between two gangs, he said, attempting to convince them that squabbling with each other interfered with making money. With his street stature, he believed he had the clout to make a detente stick.
"I think I’m a big shot back then, telling these guys that if I get involved in mediating this truce, I’m going to expect both sides to honor it," he said.
It lasted for about a week when one group decided to go for hamburgers in the other gang's territory, breaking the terms of the deal. A few days later, some of the aggrieved gang members spotted Thibodeaux in a car. It ended up in gunfire, with Thibodeaux for the second time shooting a man.
He went on the run for about six months, he said. But eventually he was arrested in Sacramento in a vehicle stop on Highway 99 and charged with attempted murder.
In 1993, at age 21, he entered Folsom State Prison.
It was there that he had an "aha" moment, he said. He was sitting in the prison yard telling "war stories" one day when he heard some older inmates dissing him.
"As they walked past, they said, 'I bet those guys are over there bragging about how they destroyed their own communities,'" Thibodeaux said. "I was offended and I was angry, but it was the truth. ... It was just like wow, I had never looked at it in that light.
"At the end of the day, I was preying on my own community, preying on the weaknesses in my own community," he said of selling drugs.
He also began to regret the moments he was missing with his three daughters, who were all under the age of 5 when he was convicted.
"For so long he was just focused on himself," said his daughter Azia Cherry, who was 2 when Thibodeaux was incarcerated. "But when he realized that ... our relationship was a decision he had made, he started to take accountability for him being incarcerated for the majority of (my life) and my sisters' lives, and he started to see things from our viewpoint.
"He and I had a heart-to-heart recently, and he was saying, 'I can't be whole, I can't be OK as a man, as a person, if I'm not OK with my daughters,'" Cherry said. "For a long time, it was him against the world. So for him to then recognize the importance of family, the importance of his children, it really touched a part of my heart that had never been touched before. I think the man he is today is one who can see the world from beyond the lens of himself. I feel really good about my dad. I am proud of him."
After being released from prison two years ago, Thibodeaux was introduced to Advance Peace by a nephew who successfully completed a fellowship. He began working as a mentor in Richmond.
He sees a chance for a "legacy change" working for Advance Peace in Sacramento, where some of his family lives — including a granddaughter who calls him Pawpaw — and where he once presented a danger to society.
"It's me redefining myself," he said.
Thibodeaux said he hopes to reach Sacramento's younger generation of gangsters and give them a glimpse into that larger view of life that was so hard-won for him and a chance at redemption without incarceration.
"Almost everything (they) do is that kill-or-be-killed mentality," he said. "The way they feel compelled to live this dangerous lifestyle, our job is to compel them to understand that they do have choices. The solution is definitely not locking all these young men up."